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The Oakland mayor’s race was close this year. Sheng Thao defeated Loren Taylor, but only by 677 votes. In the end, the city’s electorate was split, giving Thao 50.3% of all votes after the ranked choice process was run, and Taylor 49.7%.

But the election revealed another important way in which Oakland is divided: the hills and flatlands. 

Maps showing the preferences of voters at the level of precincts reveal that neighborhoods above I-580 and the Warren Freeway overwhelmingly supported Taylor, whereas Sheng Thao’s base of support was mostly in the city’s flatlands. The third-place candidate, Ignacio De La Fuente, was the top vote-getter in two deep East Oakland precincts and a very small precinct in the hills. None of the seven other candidates managed to win the most votes in any precinct.

Taylor did especially well in neighborhoods like Upper Rockridge, Montclair, Piedmont Pines, and Joaquin Miller Park, areas that are majority white, according to the U.S. Census. Taylor also gained more votes than Thao in East Oakland hills neighborhoods like Sequoya, Skyline-Hillcrest Estates, and Grass Valley, where Black and white people each account for about one-third of the population, with other racial groups accounting for smaller percentages.

Households in all of the hills areas that supported Taylor have much higher incomes than residents who live in Oakland’s flatlands. For example, in Montclair, where over half of all voters selected Loren Taylor as their first choice, the average annual household income is over $200,000.

Thao’s support poured in from neighborhoods like Fruitvale and San Antonio in East Oakland, and Santa Fe and Bushrod in North Oakland, as well as neighborhoods around Lake Merritt, downtown, Chinatown, and West Oakland. Residents in these areas tend to have lower-incomes than hills residents. For example, the average household income in most of the census tracts that make up Oakland’s Fruitvale ranges from $50,000 to $80,000, and most residents are non-white and rent their homes. Thao has been closely aligned with progressive members of the council who have promoted policies friendly to renters.

One significant area that didn’t fall into this pattern was deep East Oakland, where Taylor outperformed Thao. Many of these neighborhoods are low-income and majority Latino or Black. Taylor represents some of these neighborhoods as the District 6 representative on the City Council, and during his four years on the council, he made a point of advocating for deep East Oakland and calling for more city investments there. Taylor also made an alliance with District 7 Councilmember Treva Reid, who also ran for mayor and represents most of deep East Oakland. Reid’s endorsement of Taylor could have convinced more residents to support him.

A division rooted in race and class

For those familiar with Oakland’s political history, the hills-flatlands divide is a well-known story.

Since the 1960s, Oakland’s flatland neighborhoods, the older parts of the city sandwiched between the Bay and the foothills, and transected by several major freeways and a railroad, have become increasingly populated by low-income residents, people of color, and renters. At the same time, the hills became increasingly affluent and white, with many residents owning their homes. According to scholars like the sociologist Robert Self, these demographic shifts mirrored political divisions in Oakland, with more moderate and conservative residents flocking to the hills while the flatlands increasingly backed more progressive leaders.

Ever since, local elections have frequently been characterized by hills and flatlands voters backing opposing candidates.

Oakland’s 2002 mayoral election is a good case in point. That year, incumbent Mayor Jerry Brown faced off against former City Councilmember Wilson Riles, Jr. (this was before Oakland had ranked choice voting). “Brown easily swept every precinct above Interstate 580 and Highway 24,” the Oakland Tribune reported in a story headlined “Pattern in voting for mayor splits hills, flatlands.”

Analysis of the 2002 mayoral election by the Oakland Tribune emphasized the hills-flatlands divide. Credit: courtesy of Oakland Tribune via Newspapers.com

Brown had spent his first term, from 1999 to 2002, promising to crack down on crime, building market-rate housing downtown, and supporting charter schools. Riles, who ran on an anti-gentrification platform, won numerous flatland precincts in North, West, and East Oakland. But too few voters in the flatlands turned out for the election to give Riles the numbers he needed to defeat Brown.

One big difference between 2002 and 2022 was that in addition to winning the hills, Brown also won most Fruitvale precincts, probably thanks to the support he got from Ignacio De La Fuente, who at the time was the District 5 councilmember. In 2022, De La Fuente didn’t win a single Fruitvale precinct. He also didn’t endorse any other candidates for second or third choice on the ballot. Some De La Fuente supporters, including a political action committee that spent hundreds of thousands on ads supporting him, urged voters not to rank Taylor, Thao, or any other candidates as a second choice on their ballots.

The hills-flatlands divide was also a defining feature of the 1994 mayoral election, which saw real estate developer and former Chamber of Commerce leader Ted Dang challenge incumbent mayor Elihu Harris. Harris, an African American who had previously served in the state assembly, won nearly every flatlands precinct below the I-580 while Dang won most of the hills. Dang lost the election, according to an Oakland Tribune analysis, because Harris was able to win by massive margins in the flatlands while also prevailing in a handful of hills precincts.

Ted Dang won the Oakland hills vote in the 1994 election, while incumbent Mayor Elihu Harris won the flatlands. Credit: courtesy of Oakland Tribune via Newspapers.com

The divide revealed itself again in the 2014 mayor’s race, when Libby Schaaf defeated incumbent Mayor Jean Quan and 14 other candidates by receiving the highest number of votes in every hills precinct except for two in deep East Oakland, which were won by businessman Bryan Parker. Quan managed to win many of the Fruitvale and East Oakland flatlands precincts, but according to an analysis in Oakland North, the election was characterized by low voter turnout, especially in these parts of the city.

The 2018 mayor’s race deviated from the norm of a hills-flatlands divide. Schaaf defeated activists Cat Brooks, civil rights attorney Pamela Price, and several other challengers. Part of her success involved dominating the hills precincts, where she picked up as much as 80% of the vote in some areas. But Schaaf also won in many of Oakland’s flatlands precincts.

One thing that has changed about Oakland’s political geography is the racial makeup of the flatlands. While the hills have remained mostly white and have become even more affluent in recent years, in West and East Oakland below I-580 the number of Black people has fallen dramatically. In 1990 the city’s population was 44% Black, with most living in East and West Oakland’s flatlands. Today, only 20% of the city is Black. And the share of white and Latino people has increased, while some flatlands areas have become gentrified, with higher-income residents moving in.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017.